For most of us, air turbulence is a common occurrence when travelling to holiday destinations via plane. However, it appears that thanks to the effects of global warming, scientists predict that the phenomenon is about to worsen.

What causes turbulence?

Air turbulence is characterised by sudden and unsteady movements of airflow, and although there are various types, the most common are jet streams, mechanical and thermal. Mechanical turbulence is the friction between the air and irregular terrain, such as mountainous ranges and areas filled with skyscrapers. Thermal turbulence relates to rising hot air, usually due to the clouds found in thunderstorms. With this in mind, it is evident that global climate change will be sure to affect the smoothness of our journeys across the sky.

Climate Change

Sporadic and strange weather patterns may be to blame for the rise in cases of extreme turbulence, with studies predicting a sharp incline. University of Reading professor Paul Williams writes in his journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences that “Climate modelling studies have indicated that the amount of moderate –or greater clear-air turbulence on transatlantic flight routes in winter will increase significantly in future as the climate changes.” In fact, Williams believes that air turbulence could double (or triple) in the upcoming years. This startling statement echoes the National Transportation Safety Board’s report of an increase in ‘head-slamming’ turbulence.

Image of rainy view outside of plane window.
© Gabriele Ibba

Not a cause for concern

Although the issue of climate change is a worrying one, it is important to remember that despite the predictions, flying is still the safest mode of travel. Perhaps the most significant difference we expect to notice in the distant future is more prolonged periods of turbulence. However, Williams continues to reassure future fliers that all past, present and future planes are built to withstand even the most intense turbulent conditions.

What’s the worst turbulence you’ve ever encountered? Tell us in the comments!

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